Skip to main content
opinion

Danielle Smith holds her first press conference as Alberta premier in Edmonton on Oct. 11, 2022.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

When new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said that she has never seen a group more discriminated against than the unvaccinated, it was more a window into her soul than a first-day flub. This is the candidate UCP members voted for, and that’s exactly why she might not be electable on a broader basis.

During the leadership race, her proposed sovereignty act received most of the attention – including from me and this paper. But her stand on rights for the unvaccinated has become the lightning rod of her early days in office.

On Tuesday, at the end of her first-ever news conference with reporters as Premier, Ms. Smith said those who chose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 “have been the most discriminated-against group that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime.” She was born in 1971.

Mason: Danielle Smith’s disastrous first week on the job as Alberta Premier

Lederman: Danielle Smith, there are a few people I’d like you to meet

There was a smart way for Ms. Smith to talk about government or societal overreach with vaccine mandates over the past two-and-a-half years. But her statement was broad, sweeping and easy to criticize. Indigenous leaders, the Jewish Federation of Edmonton and Calgary’s Chinese community were quick to let her know it. Next door, British Columbia Premier John Horgan called it “laughable.” Albertans concerned with the province’s reputation – in politics and business and among their fellow Canadians – sighed another big sigh.

The next day, Ms. Smith offered a clarification – not an apology, but definitely a sign the blowback had been noticed. “I want to be clear that I did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups, or create any false equivalencies to the terrible historical discrimination and persecution suffered by so many minority groups,” she wrote on Wednesday.

If you were listening carefully, what you heard on her first day was just Ms. Smith being true to her political self. Before rejoining the world of politics, she was an advocate for therapeutic treatments for COVID-19, including ivermectin. She has been far from careful with the information she has shared about those treatments, and with determining whether it’s reliable. She has praised the pandemic leadership of states such as Florida, South Dakota and Texas, where a lack of health mandates was a point of pride.

“I figured I would be one of the unvaccinated,” she said in a webcast this past December. But months after politicians such as Jason Kenney had rolled up their sleeves to set an example by getting the shot, she flew to the U.S. to get the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Janssen. She explained that she was not comfortable with the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna, but that she had calculated that she could not go to meetings as the president of the Alberta Enterprise Group if she didn’t comply with the province’s vaccine passport system.

Her whole leadership campaign message was tailored to a very specific segment of UCP voters, and people who joined the party to show their displeasure with COVID-19 mandates. Ms. Smith pledged to amend Alberta’s Human Rights Act to ban what she called discrimination based on medical decisions. She likely rarely heard pushback in small-town community halls across the province (but she is about to, now).

Even this week, Ms. Smith described herself on the Real Talk podcast as a rural conservative, from a part of the province where vaccine skepticism is highest. She is still promoting the Great Barrington Declaration, a libertarian, anti-lockdown document that has been criticized for not taking into account the deaths, hospitalizations and long COVID cases that would result from letting the virus circulate uncontrolled.

Ms. Smith is not always easy to pin down, politically. She described herself as a “libertarian populist” on Real Talk this week. She is pro-choice, and she declined to be sworn in as Premier on a bible. Her push for getting tougher with Ottawa on matters such as energy policy could find a receptive audience among a broader Alberta electorate, as long as she performs the political miracle of defanging her sovereignty act while also keeping her base satisfied.

When it comes to vaccines, her stand might play to a specific segment of voters, but not the whole province. It was just more than a year ago, in the worst throes of the pandemic so far, that a Leger poll found more than 75 per cent of Albertans were in favour of some kind of vaccine passport system. Now, more than 87 per cent of Albertans older than 12 have had at least two shots.

Of course, things have changed quickly since late last year, with the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It has forced governments to rethink their COVID-19 measures. Scientists know now that two vaccine doses still offer protection from severe disease and death, but not against infection and transmission. Alberta Health Services (AHS) rescinded its mandatory immunization policy for health care workers in July.

Ms. Smith’s hard-line stand against vaccine mandates and unqualified defence of the unvaccinated ignores the evolution we’ve been through in dealing with COVID-19. A year ago, most Albertans and Canadians were trying to do something out of collective responsibility. They were trying to keep hospital systems from collapsing, to keep health care workers from quitting and fleeing, and to keep people from getting seriously ill. The conservative Mr. Kenney obviously didn’t want to implement a vaccine passport system, but his hand was forced by the prospect of hospitals turning away gravely ill patients. Many employers made the same decision, to protect employees.

But Ms. Smith, like other UCP members, has blamed it all on a lack of will among the senior ranks of AHS to create new ICU beds, instead of an absolute lack of health care staff and capacity.

The truth is, a libertarian world view doesn’t always cut the mustard in the middle of a public-health crisis, when acting with some collective purpose is required. And Ms. Smith is not just a radio host or columnist now. Every single word she says carries weight. While she might embrace the province being viewed as the Florida of Canada, many Albertans will not.